No maps. No GPS. Few street signs. Those are three important reasons why I don't drive in developing countries. I'd get lost. Raising our kids to follow Christ is a lot like trying to navigate in an under-developed country — there is no parenting map, no spiritual GPS. We head in the direction that seems best, trying to find our way by trial and error.
But we don't need to feel lost. As we journey through each stage of our children's development, we can point them toward spiritual markers that will help them find true faith — becoming vibrant followers of Christ.
Spiritual marker for early childhood: respect
For parents of young children, the journey of raising Christ followers starts with the task of instilling respect for God and His authority. The psalmist tells us, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10).
While most of us enjoy teaching toddlers fun Bible stories, we can't stop there. Early childhood materials may solely emphasize how "Jesus is your friend." Warm fuzzy feelings build affection for Jesus, but they don't build the foundation for spiritual wisdom. Awe, wonder and respectful fear of God lay that groundwork.
So how do you instill this respect? Teach your young children these truths:
- God is strong. He can do anything.
- God always keeps His promises.
- God gives us rules that we must obey.
- Even if Mommy or Daddy can't see what you are doing, God sees it.
- God disciplines us because He loves us.
Spiritual marker for early elementary years: wisdom
Wisdom is the ability to apply God's Word to life situations. So to grow in wisdom, your children must first learn God's Word. From ages 5 to 8, add biblical teaching to your daily routine. At this age, your children probably love to learn. Make sure you emphasize the following four areas:
Who is God? Is He an angry ogre ready to club you when you disobey? Is He a passive observer who is tolerant of everything? Is God what you make Him to be? Or is He the righteous, powerful and loving Creator found in the Bible?
Use Bible stories to teach about God. Take the story of David and Goliath for example. What can we learn about God from it? Many children's materials conclude, "You can do anything if God is on your side." But that is backward. The story's application ought to be, "Make sure you are on God's side."
What is truth? Your kids will be bombarded throughout life by truth claims from the media, teachers and friends. If you are not successful in teaching them that truth and wisdom come from the Bible, they will struggle greatly with faith challenges later.
This means you must regularly include statements like the following in your conversation: "We can always trust what God says"; "God's Word is always right"; "Obey the Bible, and you'll never be sorry."
Who is man? Our humanistic culture treats man as basically good. That's why children often struggle with accepting the Bible's claim that man is sinful. If they've not experienced abuse, abandonment, addictions or other deep hurts (as I hope they haven't), they probably see the people around them as good. Your children will not appreciate the need for a savior until they see themselves and others as sinners.
Who is Jesus? Growing up in a society that professes to value tolerance will challenge your children's faith. They may be called "intolerant" and "hateful" for claiming that Jesus is the only way to God. When your children sit in a classroom of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and atheists, will their faith in Jesus stick? To withstand this pressure, your children need a secure knowledge of who Jesus is and why He is the only Way.
Spiritual marker for late elementary: grace
The primary goal for 9- to 11-year-olds is to receive God's grace. The majority of people who trust Christ as Savior do so before they are teens. Said another way, if your children do not come to faith in Christ by the time they are teens, the likelihood begins to quickly decrease that they will do so.
That means you must do two things: First, make certain that your children fully understand the Gospel. Second, ask God to help you discern the authenticity of their decision. Countless kids "respond" to the Gospel outwardly because of pressure from a Sunday school teacher or parent, while in their hearts they remain reluctant to submit to Christ.
To understand your children's faith, ask questions: "Can you explain why Jesus died on the Cross?" "What does someone have to do to go to heaven?" "Why do you think you are a Christian?" Responses such as "I prayed a prayer" or "The teacher told me I was a Christian" may indicate they are trusting in the wrong thing.
Beyond accepting God's grace, your children also need to learn how to give grace to others. "That's not fair" may be the most common complaint of middle elementary kids. Siblings war over the size of a piece of pie, who sits in what seat in the van and who has to do the most chores. This age group is especially concerned with getting their fair share. But grace — forgetting what's fair and giving others more than they deserve — is the best way to be like Jesus.
Teaching your kids grace is a tall order. Their selfish nature will battle it. Friends will take advantage of it. So if they are going to learn how to give grace, they will need to see it consistently modeled by you.
Spiritual marker for middle school: trust
Young adolescents are beginning to wonder what their lives will hold. These years are a prime time for discussing the importance of trusting God with their future.
Here's one way to begin that conversation: Discuss Proverbs 3:5-6 with your children. Talk through it carefully: "What does it mean to 'trust in the Lord'? How about 'with all your heart'? Why is God's understanding so much better than yours? What does it mean, 'He will make your paths straight'?"
Buy a plaque with this passage on it and hang it in their room. Have them memorize it. Underline it in their Bibles. Make it a strong focus in your conversations.
When I was 13, I told God I wanted Him to have complete control of my life. I strongly believe that decision kept me out of all sorts of trouble during my teen years. In the same way, God can use your middle schoolers' commitment to Him to guide your children through the coming years.
Spiritual marker for high school: perspective
Older teens may begin wrestling with tough questions for the first time: "Why is there evil in the world?" "Why is my teacher so unfair?" "Why did God let my best friend die in a car accident?" The lack of adequate answers can send their faith tumbling.
First, provide the perspective that God is sovereign in all things. Your teens need to hear your stories about the times when God worked difficult things out for good. They need to see you trust in God. Always stay open to your teens' questions, even if they are hard to hear. If you don't have an answer, admit it — then find the answer together.
As your children grow, take note of their life stage and adjust your spiritual training accordingly. My prayer is that each of your children will grow up to be, as author George Barna puts it, "an irrepressible follower of Jesus Christ who accepts the Bible as truth, lives by its principles, seeks ways to impact the world and continually deepen his or her relationship with God."Larry Fowler is the former executive director of global training for Awana Clubs international and an author.